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Opinion | Sandro Galea

Getting smarter about guns, one state at a time


The issue of gun violence has reached, it seems, epidemic proportions. Since taking office President Barack Obama has addressed the nation 14 times in the wake of a mass shooting. In June, House Democrats staged a sit-in to protest the lack of national legislative movement on gun control. Despite these efforts, there has been little progress on this issue at the federal level, and the partisan divide remains as wide as ever. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton supports a range of gun reforms, including an assault weapons ban, while candidate Donald Trump calls gun bans “a total failure.”

There have been more than 8,000 gun deaths in the United States so far this year, and over 17,000 firearm-related injuries. In 2014, the three states with the highest per capita gun death rates were Alaska, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The states with the lowest were Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. While the relatively low number of gun deaths in Massachusetts is encouraging, the Commonwealth sees its share of gun violence; there were 78 murders committed with guns in the state in 2013 alone.

Is there a model of state-led action that could move this issue forward while, in Washington, gridlock remains the order of the day? History here may be a useful teacher.


In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. In the following decade, the idea gradually gained acceptance as, one by one, more states voted for marriage equality. Advocates were able to make their case from the ground up, slowly building momentum until the pace of change became inexorable, culminating, in 2015, in the decision of the US Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.

Gun control could follow a similar path. Laws that can effectively reduce gun deaths at the state level can set the stage for state-by-state change that anticipates a national solution to the firearm epidemic.

I recently collaborated on a study that analyzed 25 state gun laws, using gun violence data from 2010. Of these 25 laws, we identified the three that were most effective in reducing overall firearm-related mortality: laws mandating gun identification through ballistic imprinting or microstamping, ammunition background checks, and universal background checks for gun purchases. Implemented in states, these laws could do much good. Other writers have also shown efficacy of particular laws that can reduce firearm-related death and injury.

There are limits to a state-by-state approach. Guns can always be bought elsewhere with distressing ease. In 2011, 133 guns associated with crimes in Massachusetts were traced to New Hampshire, and 79 were traced to Maine, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Unlike Massachusetts, neither state requires would-be gun buyers to acquire a license. A state-centered push for gun safety would also mean a limiting of expectations — an acceptance that the sweeping national changes that could make a big difference quickly may not be the way this problem actually gets solved, at least not at first.


Massachusetts stands to be a leader here, just as it was on marriage equality. In May, state Attorney General Maura Healey, joined by an additional 12 US state attorneys general, addressed a letter to members of Congress asking that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention be allowed funding to gather data on gun violence — funding the CDC is currently denied because of restrictions pushed for by the National Rifle Association.

In 2014, then-Governor Deval Patrick signed a comprehensive gun control bill that enhanced background checks, among other measures. Meanwhile, Massachusetts-based organizations like Stop Handgun Violence and the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence have done much to foster hope and generate the kind of social momentum that will ultimately create more secure communities around the country. Raising standards for gun safety in our own state sets an example and, with some luck, catalyzes a wave that leads to a safer future.


Dr. Sandro Galea is the Robert A. Knox professor and dean of the Boston University School of Public Health.